June 22, 2022
-by Stanley Beaton, Mabou
Often in articles from Then and Now and And Then Again we read stories of people who enjoyed the respect of their relatives, neighbours, and acquaintances far and wide as well as that of their descendants and others that have succeeded them in life. The respect and appreciation we have for our forebears’ lives does not apply to all who have gone before us. Some, like the subject of my story, have fallen into the void of the unknown, and often forgotten.
Today, there are few who remember that for nearly 80 years the Municipality of the County of Inverness was responsible for the operation of an institution known as the Inverness County Asylum for the Harmless Insane. The facility was in operation in Mabou from late 1889 until February of 1947, when the building burned to the ground with the loss of life of two of the inmates (as they were referred to at the time.) The survivors, who were wards of the county, were temporarily housed at the Cape Breton County Asylum in Point Edward, and then were eventually moved to Mulgrave into a converted Armed Forces barracks where most remained until it closed in the mid-1960s. It was replaced by Mary’s Hill Home, which was considered more of a residential setting than an asylum. Mary’s Hill Home in Mabou (1960s-1990s), stayed open until it too fell out of favour. Some of those sent to Mulgrave in 1947 became residents at Mary’s Hill Home and returned to Mabou to much more amenable conditions than when they were last in Mabou in 1947.
While the Asylum was situated in Mabou, records exist which indicate that more than 440 of its residents died on site. Most were returned to their home communities for burial but at least 110 of them lie buried in an unkempt cemetery on the former Asylum property. They now lie beneath the trees in unmarked graves, unknown, and for the most part forgotten.
Among them is Elizabeth Ryan (1910-1934). Elizabeth died at the Inverness County Asylum on March 18th, 1934, at 4:00 p.m. She was buried at the Asylum Cemetery on March 19th, 1934.
She was listed as dying from Apoplexy (a stroke or internal bleeding) and was reported to have been a resident of the Asylum for seven years. There is little information on her death certificate, indeed so little, that John Alex MacDonald, the Asylum Superintendent, sent the following letter, which was added to her death certificate, to the registrar of deaths, Mr. Daniel Murray.
Inverness County Asylum
Mr. Dan Murray
I cannot get any information about this Ryan girl to fill in this form. She came to Jim MacDonald’s home in Judique when very young when her father and mother died. But Jim MacDonald could not give me any more information about her any more than what is on this form.
I am sincerely,
J A MacDonald
April 25th, 1934
From sources available to researchers today (e.g. Nova Scotia Historical Vital Statistics website) we were able to discover that Elizabeth Ann Ryan was born in Mulgrave, on September 30th, 1910, to parents Edward Ryan and Milly Ann Ryan of Mulgrave. This was just the start to the tragic life of Elizabeth Ryan. Elizabeth’s parents Edward and Amelia had married on May 2nd, 1899, in Port Hawkesbury. With Elizabeth’s birth, they had eight children. They would have at least one other child, Theresa, in 1913. Milly unfortunately died of cancer in 1914, leaving Edward to care for nine children between the ages of one and 14. Edward would have been 59 at the time of his wife’s demise.
Edward Ryan was born in Guysborough on May 21st, 1855; he died on February 16th, 1924, from Angina Pectoris, thus leaving his children as orphans. It appears that, prior to the death of Edward, several of the family were “sent” to be cared for by others. A review of the 1921 census for Port Hood and Judique confirms what John A. MacDonald wrote in the letter to Dan Murray: that Elizabeth came to Jim MacDonald’s in Little Judique. We find in the household, James MacDonald, wife Maggie, sons Ronald, Archibald, and Elizabeth Ryan age 10. A further search reveals that her sister, Theresa Ryan, is listed as being adopted and was eight years of age. She was in the home of John and Margaret MacDonald. Also in the house were their son John Willie, and Margaret Oliver aged 16.
Why Elizabeth ended up in the Asylum is unknown, but she became a resident at the age of 17 and spent the remaining seven years of her life there. Did her now orphaned siblings even know where she was? Were they notified of her death? According to John A. MacDonald’s note it seems not. Have any of them ever discovered her fate? That is a question that may be answered in the future.
Elizabeth’s story is one of many associated with the Inverness County Asylum. The reasons for people being there were many and varied. It was a different time, and a difficult time for many families who did their best for those in their charge. One sign of respect that we can show the forgotten of the Inverness County Asylum in Mabou is to ensure that their final resting place is marked and cared for, and that they are always remembered.